Wenna shielded her eyes and scanned the sea. She thought she felt tremors from the surging breakers pounding the cliffs, and she shuddered as she dismissed her superstitious musing.
It was a fine day with no cause for gloomy thoughts. Scarcity of food did not discourage Wenna, neither did living in the drafty cottage. Certain facts were cemented into the foundation of Cornwall mining life, and little could be done except bear it.
She wrung out the scrubbed shirt and draped it on the fence, grinning at the sight of Agnes’s backside as the older woman bent over her own dented washtub. Agnes was humming as she rhythmically pummelled the clothing with a washstick.
“Mornin’, Agnes.” Wenna slapped a frayed skirt over the fence and wiped her raw hands on her apron. “Ready for a sit-down? Kettle’s boiling.”
“I’m chacking enough to drink the sea.” She jostled the dirty clothes. “A few minutes’ll loosen the grime on these filthy larrups.” She laughed, her chins bobbing mirthfully. “‘It’s truth, dirt be holdin’ these rags together.” She set the washstick in the tub and rounded the fence.
“Set down. Tea’s comin’ dreckley.”
Agnes eased into a wobbly chair while Wenna poured.
“Sugar? Teacake?” Wenna offered, though no sugar bowl or cake plate graced the table.
“Thank ‘ee.” It was a comforting charade.
“‘Ee’s done a proper job, love.” Agnes indicated the swaybacked bed covered with a thin spread and the smoothly swept dirt floor. Two brown pasties cooled on a chipped plate.
“Giss on!” Wenna blushed at the older woman’s praise.
They drank their weak tea, enjoying each other’s company and the short respite.
“Feel it?” Wenna’s voice quavered.
“Rumblin’s. In the ground.”
“The piskies be foolin’ ‘ee, love.”
“There it be again. I felt somethin’ before, but I thought it was breakers poundin’ the cliffs.”
Agnes frowned as she became aware of the vibration rippling beneath the dirt floor and rolling through the air like faint thunder. Wenna leaped up, toppling her tea mug in her urgency. Gasping raggedly, Agnes followed, maneuvering her bulk through the narrow doorway.
“Ohhh...” Wenna breathed the word, like a gossamer sigh.
Men were swarming around the mine head, shouting and gesturing. Several sprinted toward the cluster of miners’ hovels where Wenna and Agnes stood.
“Wasson?” Agnes asked, hesitantly approaching the nearest man as he stooped over struggling for air.
“Man-engine. Busted.” He gulped. “Everyone in the ‘ole. Tom and Davy, too.”
“Dear Jesus,” moaned Agnes.
“Ohhh...” whispered Wenna again. Agnes didn’t wait; she was running toward the mine where her Tom undoubtedly lay at the bottom of the muddy shaft, alongside Davy, young, strong Davy.
“Rescuers already ‘eaded down the ‘ole.”
Wenna hurtled ahead of Agnes. “God, oh, God, oh, God,” she whimpered in time to her running footsteps.
The rescue team had disappeared down the gaping maw of the mine, and the manager had peeled off his jacket as he waited to be lowered. Survivors, filthy and near naked, were knotted together in stunned bewilderment.
Davy and Tom were not among them.
They were still somewhere below, maybe crushed by tangled wreckage, maybe still breathing noxious air...
The afternoon light dimmed. Wenna and Agnes huddled, arms wreathed around each other, cowering every time a body was drawn out of the black hole, every time sharp keening rent the night as maimed remains were claimed.
After midnight came the announcement that several men were pinned in the chokage, their deadly descent blocked by jammed timbers. Miraculously, they were alive.
“Oh, please...” Wenna’s prayer blended with other murmurings in the velvety darkness. Dare they hope Tom and Davy were among the wedged miners, while others had certainly perished?
Many were still waiting, shivering and waxen-faced, in the slate-gray dawn. Someone brought a pail of steaming tea. Agnes and Wenna drank gratefully.
The timber-trapped miners were lifted from the mine at noon.
A miner with a battered leg explained how Tom’s broken, lifeless body had kept the timber braced tightly against the mine wall. “Tom saved us, ‘e did.”
Agnes crossed herself and murmured a gentle “Oh, God.” Long ago, she’d accepted every miner’s likely fate.
Davy’s smile was startlingly bright in his blackened face. “I held onto the beam, Wenna. I dunno how.”
Wenna clasped Davy’s wounded hands in hers.
“I dunno how. I just dunno...” Davy mumbled again as he fainted.
Like a long, tapered finger, the engine-house chimney pointed skyward.
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